Before I had kids, I was lonely. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends and social activities. I went out on the weekends, I took trips, I played music, and I attended meet-ups. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a full life. And yet, I was lonely. Even with a boyfriend and good pals, I felt fundamentally alone when I went home at the end of the evening and got ready for bed by myself. Long stretches of Sunday yawned before me every weekend.
Then I met my husband and had my boys soon thereafter, and loneliness immediately ceased to be a problem. It helps that I live in a community with a lot of families and a lot of SAHMs for socializing, and it helps that my husband is my best friend as well as the love of my life. It’s hard to be lonely when I have so many points of connection with other people, from the romantic to the familial to the casually social.
But I do wonder if having kids is a cure for loneliness or merely a mask for it—after all, I’m so busy (as all mothers are) and so constantly surrounded by people that it’s tough for a lonely thought to creep in. I’ve heard other mothers who had mild depression say that having children effectively “cured” their depression—largely because every second of the day is full. There’s literally not a moment to even think the words “I’m depressed,” because you’re too busy yelling at someone to put their shoes on and calculating whether there are enough eggs for egg salad. (This doesn’t apply, of course, to serious, intractable depression, and I’m in no way dismissing the struggles of people who suffer from it.)
But I’ve felt this way–the way my friend felt about depression–about loneliness. When you have kids, the day is full of social interactions, from grandmas in the supermarket who coo over your kids to other parents commiserating with you at the playground, from the pediatrician appointments to the parent-teacher conferences. There’s no time to even think the words “I’m lonely.”
I think this sheer, unrelenting busy-ness is the key to combatting loneliness, whether you have kids or not. You know how researchers say you need only 20 minutes of exercise, three times a week, for good health? Maybe that’s true, strictly speaking. But on the rare occasions when I’ve had the time and inclination to exercise a lot, like, three hours a day, I’ve been amazed at how terrific I feel. It’s the same for socializing: When I was single, I had plans once or twice a week and thought I was doing pretty well. But with kids, social interaction is pretty much all day, every day, non-stop. Every interaction is filled with purpose: I’m feeding my family, taking the kids to the park, running to the library or Target. Even work is imbued with the intention of “this buys things for my family.” It’s an organic cure—the sheer busy-ness plus that sense of purpose—for loneliness that would be hard to duplicate without kids. So, in a sense, becoming a mother has cured my loneliness.
In my “pre-emptive nostalgia” moments, I look at my boys, ages 2 and 5 now, and think, “this is pretty much the perfect moment in my life.” They still need me on an hour-by-hour basis, but it’s not the grinding labor of the newborn and infant stage. The days of no diapers, strollers and sippy cups are in sight. They are still funny and fat and adorable, and haven’t yet realized that I’m crazy. My husband and I share a million moments a day when we exclaim over how hilarious and lovable they are.
Often, the thought “someday they’ll leave” grips my heart, and I wonder if the loneliness will come roaring back, a monster who lay dormant for twenty years, just waiting to seize me when I’m 60 and the boys are out in the world. My current life of “wake up, hit the ground running, sprint from commitment to commitment, fall into bed at 11PM” will be over. All the things I wish for now—a couple of hours to read the Sunday paper, fewer dishes to wash, a lower grocery bill—will be mine for the taking. I hope they’ll be no price to pay in loneliness.
But I suspect I’ll have to start manufacturing commitments to replace the marathon/obstacle course that’s currently, naturally, my daily life. Maybe that’s the cure: Not so much the kids per se, but the understanding that the treatment is a full life—but much, much fuller than you ever thought possible. When the kids are gone, I hope they’ll leave behind the infrastructure they’ve unwittingly helped me build, one in which I say hello to the butcher and ask after his kids and chat with the elderly neighbor whenever she’s out in her front garden.
Someday, Sundays may yawn before me once again. But for now, I’m not lonely, and for that, I’m tremendously grateful. I’ll take it while it lasts, and even though I hate it when older people say this to me, yes, I’ll enjoy every moment.